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Anthropological perspectives on physical appearance and body image

Author(s): Anderson-Fye EP


The discipline of anthropology takes as its task the holistic study of humans and is often considered the broadest of the social sciences. The discipline has been interested in the study of human appearance since its earliest days. Early European anthropologists, working during the ‘age of exploration’ and the ‘age of enlightenment’, were fascinated by the variable appearance of peoples they encountered. Questions about diversity of appearance in terms of body size and shape, skin color, body modification, and body ornamentation were part of the earliest set of questions of anthropology (at that time based in Western Europe) that wondered, “How are they similar to or different from us?” Physical appearance, in conjunction with other markers of difference such as language, was used to classify groups and ask philosophical questions about the evolution and nature of the species. Questions about physical appearance, and later body image, continued to flourish in anthropological studies up to the present day

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